No, Rishi Sunak should not apologise for his ‘trans jibe’
It is the chattering classes’ weaponisation of Brianna Ghey’s death that is truly offensive.
The perpetually offended are it again. They’re swarming social media to let the world know they’re outraged. What’s rankled them this time? Rishi Sunak taking the piss out of Keir Starmer for not knowing what a woman is. Sunak made his swipe during PMQs in the Commons today. But here’s the thing: Esther Ghey, the mother of murdered trans teenager Brianna Ghey, was visiting parliament at the time. The offencerati are collapsing on their fainting couches. They can’t believe it. For the PM to make a ‘trans jibe’ while the grief-stricken mother of a trans teen was in the building is a new low, they’re wailing at anyone who’ll listen.
Everyone needs to calm down. First off, it wasn’t a ‘trans jibe’, as the BBC is dumbly calling it. It was a Starmer jibe. Sunak wasn’t making fun of trans people – he was making fun of the leader of the Labour Party who is notorious for rambling incoherently when anyone asks him that question he dreads most: ‘What is a woman?’ Sunak ripped Starmer for his ceaseless u-turning, including on the issue of how to ‘define a woman’. ‘Although in fairness’, said Sunak, ‘that was only 99 per cent of a u-turn’. He was referring to the time Starmer said, in an interview, that ‘99.9 per cent of women haven’t got a penis’. He was mocking his opposite number. That’s what politicians do.
To denounce this as a ‘grim’ instance of trans people being treated as ‘the butt of political jokes’ – in the words of that most breathless guardian of bien pensant thought, Lewis Goodall – is preposterous. There wasn’t a sliver of ‘transphobia’ in Sunak’s remarks. It was Starmer’s post-truth claim that 0.01 per cent of women have a penis – that’s one in 1,000 – he was taking potshots at. As is his right. As is everyone’s right – that the man likely to be the next PM thinks tens of thousands of women in the UK have a penis is deeply unsettling. It is Starmer’s ‘woman jibes’, his treatment of women as the butt of his political posturing, that should really unnerve us.
Perhaps, though, the presence of Esther Ghey means Sunak should not have said anything at all about the trans issue, even if we accept he wasn’t being ‘transphobic’? That’s the line his fuming critics are taking. ‘Of all the weeks to say that… when Brianna’s mother is in this chamber’, said Starmer with performative solemnity. According to the BBC, Ms Ghey wasn’t actually in the Commons public gallery when Sunak made his comments – she ‘entered shortly afterwards’. Even had she been, though, I still believe that Sunak and everyone else in that free, elected chamber should have carried on expressing themselves as they see fit.
Everyone feels for Esther Ghey following the appalling murder of her 16-year-old child. Everyone admires the quiet dignity with which she has conducted herself in the wake of her incalculable loss. (Including, as it happens, Sunak: Ms Ghey ‘deserves all our admiration’, he said today.) That’s precisely why it is so unpleasant to see her emotional loss – or anyone else’s emotional loss, for that matter – be weaponised to curtail democratic discussion about important public matters. This country fought for centuries to liberate the Commons from the unaccountable oversight of princes and priests. For the new priestly elites of the 21st century to use the grief of a mother in order to chill debate in that chamber turns back the clock. It is cynical in the extreme. It is their behaviour – not Sunak’s – that deserves the descriptor of ‘grim’.
I was more horrified by what Starmer said in the Commons. It seemed to me that he invoked the name of Brianna Ghey to try to shut down Sunak’s line of interrogation about his u-turning and his unscientific utterances on womankind. He was playing the tragedy of Brianna almost as a trump card against the PM. And he wasn’t alone. That’s been the vibe of all the spluttering on social media this afternoon. In honour of Brianna, and out of respect for Brianna’s mother, we must watch our mouths and curb our beliefs, apparently. You can call this progressive activism, if you like – I prefer to call it moral blackmail, the marshalling of a mother’s deep sadness to the end of circumscribing democratic discussion.
‘Our PM is disgusting! Resign!’, says Labour’s Dawn Butler. That’s big talk from the woman who once said babies are born without a sex. More to the point, the truly ‘disgusting’ behaviour today was that of Sunak’s critics. Those who are so keen to stymie scientific and political debate on the trans question that they will even weaponise parental suffering to those authoritarian ends. Starmer’s unparliamentary, undemocratic deployment of Esther Ghey’s pain to try to dodge difficult questions was shameful. You people need to show more respect for open debate in the highest democratic chamber in the land. And you need to let Brianna rest in peace, you ghouls.
Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy
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